I’m always shamefully quick to admit that I missed out on the reign of LucasArts and the adventure genre that was pretty much the face of PC gaming in the 90s. Apparently this was a time of well-made, intelligent and humorous endeavors like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and of course The Secret of Monkey Island, long before the company totally abandoned ingenuity and originality in favour of milking every last drop of profit from the Star Wars franchise.
Fortunately, with the high-definition remastering of TSOMI and the wonders of Xbox Live Arcade, Steam and Playstation Store, myself and many people like me now have the opportunity to experience these by-gone days of gaming without having to load up DOSBox.
So how does a twenty year-old game hold up today? Well that depends on who you are, and what you’re looking for in a £10 product. The only “special” parts of this Special Edition are the aforementioned glossy HD makeover and some above-average voice acting, neither of which are particularly deal breakers if you’re not into the genre. What’s important here is the gameplay, and that’s still the traditional point-and-click adventure most people played in 1990 – nothing gained, nothing lost. My worry is simple: will the vast majority of modern gamers consider that to be enough?
For those not in the know, The Secret of Monkey Island tells the tale of Guybrush Threepwood, a curiously soft-spoken and polite young man who yearns above all things to be a pirate. Players guide him around the world by clicking where they want him to go, who they want him to talk to and how they want him to use various random items in increasingly illogical ways. It’s true that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, but the problem with that is people are no longer familiar with weird adventure game logic. Puzzles should be difficult, but there’s a very fine line between reasonable experimentation and simple trial-and-error. In this particular genre, that line is all too often remarkably blurry.
Puzzles in Monkey Island are of the “use item x with item y” variety, but the vast majority of the solutions are spectacularly esoteric. Upon close inspection they do (sometimes) make a modicum of sense, but more often than not it would make considerably more sense to use one of the four or five other, more appropriate items that you’re carrying around. Of course this comes with the territory, but it takes some getting used to if you’re not already accustomed to it, and it’s easy to imagine less patient players than myself getting bored and giving up. Truth be told, there is a hint system in this edition, but for people who like this kind of thing using it would pretty much be considered sacrilege.
Regardless of its age, TSOMI is phenomenally well-written, and it’s always worth taking the time out to decipher the puzzles just to see what wonderfully charming and hilarious thing the characters will do or say next. Credit goes to the all-star tag team of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who later went on to lead the development of The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge.
I’ve got to recommend TSOMI, whether you have played an adventure game or not. No, you may not be utterly taken with how it all works, but I challenge anyone not to appreciate the originality, intelligence, humour and charm here. If you’re new to the adventure genre, like I was, this is the perfect starting point. If you loved the game in 1990, you’ll love it now. It’s a little bit like slipping on an old pair of slippers; they’re just as warm, comfortable and welcoming as ever – just remember that someone’s drawn all over them with a felt-tip pen.